Fauna & Flora International teams up with AUA Acopian Center to study human-wildlife conflict in Armenia

The abundance of livestock and other foodstuff, coupled with proximity to wildlife habitats makes villages vulnerable to animals like wolves and bears. With very few exceptions, the threat is not directly against people but against their economic assets. Wolves kill sheep, cows and fowl, while bears damage fruit trees, destroy bee hives and deplete honey supplies.

Over time these types of interactions can take a heavy economic toll on villages that, often, are already struggling to survive on meagre resources. It is no surprise, then, that the first response of the farmers is to resort to killing wolves or bears, dealing a significant blow to an already tattered ecosystem.

Fauna & Flora International (FFI) has recently partnered with the American University of Armenia Acopian Center for the Environment (AUA Acopian Center) to launch a baseline study that will help scientists better understand conflicts between people and wildlife in Armenia and develop new approaches for mitigating them.

The AUA Acopian Center researchers, all of whom are AUA students, will study nine rural communities across Armenia, as well as the habitat conditions of the wildlife. “It’s important to recognise that there is no single solution across all communities in addressing this problem,” says Dr Karen Aghababyan, chief scientist of the AUA Acopian Center and the manager of the project. “Each rural community has its own set of unique conditions that will impact the nature of the conflict and the availability of favourable solutions,” he says.

FFI has been involved in human-wildlife conflict mitigation projects for many years, working extensively in Africa, Southeast Asia, Eastern Europe and – most recently – in the Republic of Georgia.

In Georgia, FFI worked very closely with the Tusheti people (traditional sheep farmers who move their flocks between summer and winter pastures) and has seen a marked improvement in the attitudes of livestock farmers towards wolves, thanks to a programme of direct intervention, awareness raising and market-based innovation. Much is yet to be done there, and FFI hopes, along with the Georgian NGO NACRES, to expand the programme to other parts of the country over the coming years.

Grey wolf. Credit: Gareth Goldthorpe/FFI.

Grey wolves are most commonly found in packs, usually numbering around five to 12 related individuals. Credit: Gareth Goldthorpe/FFI.

“Improving access to alternative markets is increasingly becoming a favoured approach to mitigating the negative impacts of human-wildlife conflict,” explains Gareth Goldthorpe, FFI’s technical coordinator for the Caucasus. “For the people involved, conflict with wildlife is primarily an economic issue; whether it is wild boar eating crops or wolves attacking sheep, there is a loss of earnings for the farmers.

“However, in many cases there are other external factors that may be limiting access to markets and therefore incomes. Our approach is to take the whole system into account and explore ways that such access can be improved. By taking the pressure off the farmers in this respect, they are able to better tolerate reasonable losses from, in this case, large carnivores.”

FFI will draw on its extensive experience, both regional and international, to help the AUA Acopian Center develop and implement a rigorous and effective programme of work that will unravel the complexities of the system: from wildlife to farmer, and from market to consumer.

Interviews. Credit: Levon Demirchyan/AUA Acopian Center for the Environment.

The Armenian team has begun conducting pilot interviews with community members. Credit: Levon Demirchyan/AUA Acopian Center for the Environment.

“For humans it is very easy to demonize other animals when they attack our interests. This is a morally blind and an ecologically dangerous tendency on our part. Wolves and bears often approach human communities for food because their habitats and food supplies have been destroyed, usually by humans. And the humans that do the destroying are often not the villagers but instead economic interests in logging, mining, agriculture, or urban sprawl,” says Alen Amirkhanian, Director of the AUA Acopian Center for the Environment.

“So, it’s incumbent on us to figure out solutions both at the local and at the national level,” suggests Amirkhanian. At later, more advanced stages of the study Amirkhanian will look to engage relevant regional and national authorities.

To begin the process, the FFI team organised a kick-off meeting in Tbilisi, Georgia, where the gaps in knowledge, and the main information sources were identified. Following on from this, the Armenian team has developed a set of question sheets that will form the basis of interviews with targeted groups and individuals, and has begun piloting these in villages.

The baseline study is expected to be completed by November 2013.